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House Oversight used as a 'discovery proxy'

On Wednesday the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chaired by Rep. Henry Waxman held a hearing, "On Manufacturers of FEMA's Toxic Trailers," with testimony from four representatives of the travel trailer industry. The issue was formaldehyde levels in trailers that FEMA supplied to people displaced by Hurricane Katrina. It was your typical House Oversight hearing, full of attacks against industry and the Administration as bad actors.

Thankfully, some balance come from the ranking member of the committee, Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), who gave an opening statement that reflected the real world difficulties that FEMA and the industry encountered after the disaster. Davis recounted the different reports on formaldehyde levels from tests conducted by the CDC and commented (our emphasis):

That leaves trailer occupants, already victimized by one storm, caught in a lingering tempest of post-Katrina political scapegoating, bureaucratic finger-pointing, and litigation. Once again the Committee risks being used as a discovery proxy for plaintiffs suing companies called to testify before us. Instead, we should be asking FEMA why contract requirements for habitable mobile units weren't more specific, why inspection procedures weren't consistent, and why heath concerns didn't trigger standardized testing and, where necessary, prompt remediation. We should be asking federal science and health agencies how to establish, and measure, workable standards for formaldehyde exposure in realistic settings.

Along those lines, here's...

  • An informative article on the lawsuits against one of the trailer manufacturers. It's from "Trial," the magazine of the American Association for Justice.

  • ToxicFEMAtrailer.com, a website from a lawfirm soliciting clients in a class-action lawsuit.

  • An MSNBC story on the hearing, "Congress names names in FEMA trailer probe -- House Democrats say manufacturers knew of high formaldehyde levels."

The MSNBC story is a real piece of work, "Congressional Democrats for the first time named names Wednesday in their investigation of formaldehyde-contaminated travel trailers provided by FEMA to victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, charging that manufacturers knew but did not disclose that the units were emitting high levels of the toxic gas that could sicken inhabitants." Named names...The media cannot resist making McCarthy-era allusions, no matter how ridiculous and strained.

Anyway, it's the classic combination: "Investigating" politicians, industry-attacking class-action lawyers, and hyping, accusatory media. At least Rep. Davis identified the game being played.

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Rafael Mangual
Project Manager,
Legal Policy

Manhattan Institute


Published by the Manhattan Institute

The Manhattan Insitute's Center for Legal Policy.